A Post Mortem
Europhobia's been liveblogging the election throughout the night
Reg Keys, Stephen Twigg, Tim Collins, Peter Law, George Galloway. The Good, The Smug, The Geeky, The Hurt, The Ugly. It’s not a chain of names that lights a fire as those of 1997 do among voters of a particular persuasion but it’s been a damn site more interesting than 2001.
In the not so early hours of Friday, Radio 4’s coverage made an interesting point; this is a holding election. There’s been a reshuffling of the cards, not enough to sway the game but enough to make the players think. Extended metaphors notwithstanding, all three main parties are on subtly different ground than when they went in.
Labour have suffered no striking defeats (the most notable being Stephen‘did you stay up for Portillo’ Twigg). Indeed, they have added to their talent base as Ed Balls joins the ranks – his post reshuffle role will say a lot about the Blair / Brown relationship. Even ‘troublemakers’ like Bob Marshall Andrews have survived. This is part of Blair’s problem (for it seems unlikely that Brown will see power any time soon). People like Marshall Andrews, Glenda Jackson, Frank Dobson and Jeremy Corbyn slipped back in, while many (around 90) more pliable types lost out. The Government will have to learn how to deal with this, along with the sort of majority that would have been stomped in tricky votes such as tuition fees. In addition, victory notwithstanding, Labour will be governing with the lowest share of the popular vote (approx 36%) of any democratic government. Will this lead to a new humility? It seems unlikely, but if the first term Labour government seemed to legislate with one eye on 2001, then to paraphrase George Galloway, we aint seen nothing yet.
Ah, ‘Gracious’ George Galloway. He, along with Peter Law and second term MP Dr Richard Taylor, represent an incongruent resurgence of non-affiliation. Galloway’s bizarre acceptance rant – half underdog fight-the-power, half despot justification – brings out the plain weird undertow of this election. He’ll prove a thoroughly slashing, self-aggrandizing thorn in the Government’s side. Peter Law sits at the other end of the spectrum. His post-election TV experience was touching – hurt that the Labour executive couldn’t seem to understand that his one reason for standing (and election) was the parachuting in of hand-picked candidates from the (women-only) shortlist. Finally Dr Taylor has, on the basis of his reduced majority, one more term to secure the future of Kidderminster hospital. These three represent no threat to the government, but their very existence is an aberration. That minority interests such as these can secure representation – without PR – represents very odd territory.
The Conservatives at least must be free of worries. The ill-fated Lib Dem ‘decapitation strategy’ proved a singularly damp squib, ‘claiming’ only Tim Collins. But he could just travel back in time and undo it all. In fact, in most Tory/Lib Dem constituency fights, the blues came out on top, underlining the end of the Lib/Lab tactical voting accord of the late 1990s. The Tories are in a position to consolidate this result. If they choose to. This is the key phrase. Can they really afford to go stuttering around, taking issues of minority interest as national policy (on the advice of ‘expert’ pollsters) rather than forging a new party identity? Well, no. But then that’s something for the ‘natural party of government’ to work out for themselves. Suffice to say this result is a gift. They have ranks bolstered by fresh faces (including Adam Afriyie – their first ever black MP) and a new momentum. It would take a fool to waste this, but sadly there are plenty of those around too.
Finally, the Liberal Democrats, whose result is a mystery, wrapped in a puzzle, wrapped in some sort of mysterious way that could at once conceal a train set and a really big lump of coal. Politicians are wont to read the best into the worst of electoral results but the Lib-Dems are in one of those situations where even an objective observer could see both good and bad. They’ve lost a bunch of their traditional West Country bases but gained a whole new set of urban seats in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and London (perhaps solely a result of anti-war protest). They’ve boosted their seats by around ten but have only secured a share of the national vote equivalent to early opinion polls. They’ve scored several surprising victories over Labour (for instance Cambridge) but have also come off worse in tussles with the Tories. Charles Kennedy has undoubtedly done better in each election he’s fought after taking over from Paddy Ashdown but is reaching the point where he risks going from chummy man of the people to perennial also-ran loser. Yes, there are more Liberal MPs than at any time since the 1920s, but the same was true last time around. Sooner (rather than later) the Lib-Dems will have to convert Guinness Book of Records achievements into real results.
But the high point of it all was Reg Keys’ moving, powerful and personal concession speech in Sedgefield. I’m too tired and rubbish to track down a transcript right now, but these will soon be everywhere. Suffice to say it was the sort of moment that lights up contests like these and shows the importance of democracy and the grubby electioneering that it can too often be mistaken for.